Despite what the greasy, egotistical tryhards of Deviantart would tell you. Character design has rules to it. These rules are well established, nearly-universally agreed upon by actual professionals in the field, and are based on simple truths in design.
Let’s use a visual aid. I’m gonna put out some examples of good character design and then I’m going to show you some examples of bad character design. Then I’m going to compare them to explain why the good design works and the bad design is a thing of shame.
FIGURE 1. The Mega Man 2 Robot Masters
These guys are a classic example of good character design. Take a good look at them. Notice the colors used.They show an excellent understanding of color theory. Quick Man, Heat Man and Metal Man’s designs make use of red and yellow. These are warm colors, which works for Heat Man, The colors are complimentary while still being distinct. the use of yellow in key places breaks up the red used in the majority of Quick Man’s design while still meshing nicely with it, creating a dynamic design that effectively conveys his status as the speed demon of the 8.
Metal Man uses colors similar to Quick Man’s, but they are used differently. Red and yellow are distributed in a more even way, as opposed to Quick man’s theme of predominately red with yellow accents. The red used on Crash Man is more of an orange-ish hue that compliments the saffron yellow parts and contrasts the white of his legs and waist, as well as the green gem on his chest.
Air Man and Flash Man’s designs use a mix of blue and yellow, which provide a nice contrast to their designs. Bubble Man uses colors that flow together like green and yellow and blue, with a red chest gem to provide a dash of warmth and contrast. Wood Man is done up in earth tones which suits his name and design.
In addition to the use of color, notice that most of their designs take cues from objects found in life. Heat Man has a flip-up lid like a zippo lighter and the yellow stripe on his head is segmented to look like the lighter’s striker wheel. Wood Man is based off a cypress tree with a thick trunk and the top of his head is made to look like a cut-down tree’s stump. Air Man has a fan built into his chest and due to how close it is to his eyes, it looks like a big open mouth, which is a very clever touch that gives him a lot of character. Bubble Man has a diving mask, air tank on his back, and flippers to make him look like a Scuba diver, which fits with the overall aquatic theme.
Flash Man has sections on his arms and a portion on the top of his head that are designed to look like a camera’s flash bulb. Quick Man has an angular V-shaped crest on his helmet and diamond shaped plates on his knees and these angular, symmetrical elements give a dynamic, flowing feel to his design. Crash Man has a pointy visor that reminds one of a bomb squad technicians helmet and the drills on his arms further accentuate the sharp, angular, menace of his design. Crash Man looks like a dangerous combat machine and that is what he his. The designs are colorful, creative, and memorable.
Figure 2. Crocodile, One Piece
One Piece is a manga with some truly great and imaginitive characters and Crocodile is a great example of how to design an antagonist. Immediately upon looking at him, you know that he’s based on a mafiosa, which perfectly fits his role in the story and his personality. His design carries a sense of menace, but also a regal aloofness. Note the fur coat draped over his shoulders like a cape and the designer suit. This fits his character as a powerful figure in the criminal underworld. The colors used are mostly secondary colors, with the coat’s dark green contrasting nicely with the orange vest and blue tie. The scar running across his face is a nice touch, effectively conveying that he is a powerful and experienced combatant. Another thing, look at how he is proportioned. One Piece’s style is more cartoony and exaggerated than most mangas and Crocodile here is an example of stylized anatomy done right. He has broad shoulders, a triangular torso, a broad neck and face with distinctly Italian/Mediterranian features. He’s a caricature of a crime boss which fits him and his role in the series very nicely. Also, his big golden hook hand is a cool touch when you remember that most mafia members aren’t subtle in the least when it comes to displaying their wealth. You know the boss of a pirate mafia would wear something that awesomely gaudy.
Figure 3: The Mario Brothers.
Mario and Luigi are the ur-examble of great character design in gaming. Mario was developed in the early days of arcade gaming so the crude graphical technology of the time forced Nintendo’s designers to make every aspect of his appearance a carefully thought out decision. They gave him overalls so his arms could be made clearly visible on his 8x8 pixel sprite. His big nose and mustache were added to give him a face, and the cap was added as a final touche to cement his role as a everyday workman thrust into the role of hero. From then on, his design had remained more-or-less constant over the years with just his proportions and body shape changing over time. His earlier incarnations were stocky and almost dwarven in proportions, while his current design prefers soft, rounded shapes to make him look friendly and nonthreatening, which is a must for any character intended to be a mascot.
Luigi is also an interesting case of good design and art evolution. He was originally just a palette swap of Mario as was typically in the early days of gaming. As time went on and hardware improved, Luigi’s design was changed to differentiate him from Mario. Compared to his brother, Luigi is taller, his limbs are lankier and thinner, his body and head are comprised of elongated ovals and even his overalls are a deeper, more indigo color than the bright blue of Mario’s overalls. This design fits with how Luigi is portrayed in recent games. He lacks Mario’s confidence and his movements are clumsier to offset his higher jumps. He is a sidekick and a comic relief while still being good at what he does. As simple as their designs are (color coded shirt, hat, overalls, brown work shoes) Mario and Luigi are instantly recognizable ,very memorable, and their design meshes perfectly with their role in the games and that is the highest measure of success in character. This is an important lesson for all you would-be artists and designers out there. When it comes to details on your character design, go with quality over quantity. This is why Mario and Luigi are so beloved and why Nomura’s recent Final Fantasy designs are very rarely mentioned outside of jokes at Square-Enix’s expense.
Figure 4: Ed, Edd, and Eddy
If you were a child in the US and Canada in the 90’s and early 2000’s, you remember these guys. Ed,Edd,n’Eddy in general has some of the best art direction in televised animation. The show employed an expressive, caricaturish style with vibrant colors. The three Eds are an example of this design theory. Each Ed boy is designed in a way that suggests their personalty. Ed is given wide-spaced eyes a unibrow to give his face a vacant appearance, his posture is slouched and his proportions are very lanky and loose. His green jacket goes well with the red and white horizontal stripes of his shirt and these details help the viewer to notice his tall, tube-like design. You take one look at Ed and you know he’s the dumb muscle of the trio.
Edd has a round head on a very thin body, his facial features are comprised mostly of round shapes to give him a soft look. He is the physically frail brains of the group, and he has a delicate-looking design to match.
Eddy is the shortest of the three and his mouth is almost always drawn large and pronounced. He has only three very long strands of hair on the top of his head which, along with his short stature and stocky torso, gives him sort of a cockroach or insect-like appearance,which fits him. Other details such as his wallet chain, and the rings of pale skin around his eyes are nice little touches which further gives an already vibrant design more personality. His shirt is bright yellow with a red stripe and purple accents, which fits his loud, prideful character.
His design has a subtle sleaziness to it, which fits his role as the inept hustler and schemer of the gang.
Figure 5: Batman
Batman is one of the most famous and beloved superheroes ever. His design is notable for being in sharp contrast to the usual superhero outfit. While most supers dress in bright, flashy colors, Bats suits up in black, gray, dark blue, and other muted colors that fits his stealthy approach to crimefighting as well as the overall bat motif. His costume is elegantly simple, cowl with pointy ears, bat symbol, briefs over gray tights, gloves and boots and a cape. It’s a simple, effective design that has remained largely the same over the years. The muted colors of his design also mesh with his morose, brooding personality. He was a dark and moody superhero long before dark and moody superheros became fashionable. His mask is designed to emphasize his big lantern jaw, and his overally physique is comprised of hard shapes. He’s a rough, no-nonsense guy and his design displays that.
In part two, I will be going over some examples of bad character design.